Go the Extra Mile

Inside Ford Motor Co.'s cavernous wind tunnel, a thin stream of smoke glides gracefully over the new Lincoln Zephyr. But what catches the eye of aerodynamic engineer Wayne Koester is a tiny somersault of smoke just where the back window hits the trunk. "Do you see that?" he says, pointing from behind the control-room window. "That's turbulence." And turbulence is the archenemy of aerodynamics. Koester tried to persuade Lincoln's designers to lower the trunk to improve mileage. But they balked, saying Lincoln's customers demand a big trunk to haul golf clubs. The result: the Zephyr gets 28mpg on the highway--1mpg less than its sister car, the Ford Fusion. "I'd rather have the trunk lid lower; it would look better and have better aero," Koester says. "But it always becomes a compromise."

These days, though, mileage misers like Koester are gaining traction in Motown. After two decades of high-octane growth in horsepower and heft, Detroit is painfully rediscovering the eat-your-peas merits of fuel economy. General Motors and Ford combined to lose $5 billion in their auto operations in the third quarter as pain at the pump sent SUV sales into the ditch. Detroit used to say that fuel economy was the last thing buyers asked for and the first thing they complained about. But lately concern about gas mileage has jumped into the top five reasons shoppers reject a car, according to new research from J.D. Power.

Now that mileage matters, the race is on to reverse a 20-year slide in fuel economy in America. And hybrids, for all their megawatt buzz, are not the only answer--they account for just 1.3 percent of the market, since most car buyers can't afford the $4,000 to $10,000 premium to own one. The real action in fuel economy is in conventional cars. And that's where the big fuel savings will come, since cars of all kinds account for 40 percent of America's oil consumption. (Homes consume 22 percent of our nation's energy, and they're attracting a lot of engineers' attention, too; graphic on page 53.) In wind tunnels and R&D labs, auto engineers are chiseling away at cars to make them "slippery." And they're overhauling the century-old internal-combustion engine and transmissions to squeeze out a few more mpg. "Gas will have to go to $5 a gallon before hybrids give a reasonable payback," says David Champion, Consumer Reports' auto-test chief. "But you can get a 15 to 20 percent improvement in fuel economy from standard cars if customers demand it."

So the latest trend in automotive PR is to shine a spotlight on the guts of upcoming models, rather than just their curvy exteriors. Last week Ford held a news conference to take the wraps off a new V-6 engine and six-speed transmission that it says will improve fuel economy by 7 percent. GM is touting its own fuel-saving six-speed, and Chrysler just introduced its new Caliber small car with a transmission that continuously, but imperceptibly, modulates gears to boost mpg by 8 percent. Japanese automakers have announced plans to bring high-mileage city cars to the U.S. market, once considered inhospitable to such small runabouts. The Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa will arrive next year packed with fuel-saving technologies that generate up to 40mpg. Even the marketing department is pitching mileage. GM is running full-page ads headlined meet the 30 and up crowd, to promote its models that get 30mpg or better on the highway.

The breakthrough making the most noise, though, is actually a retread of an innovation that failed a generation ago. Over the last 18 months, Chrysler, Honda and GM have introduced engines in which half the cylinders shut off at cruising speeds, boosting mileage by as much as 12 percent. GM tried shutting down cylinders to save gas 25 years ago, after the last energy crisis. But the infamous Cadillac "8-6-4" engine was a disaster, prone to leaking oil, rattling the steering wheel and breaking down. Today's GM engineers went to school on their forefathers' flop to develop their new displacement on demand (DOD) V-8. And this time, the DOD is not DOA. The engineers replaced the old clunky mechanical controls with electronics that calibrate every fraction of a second whether to run on full or half-caf. NEWSWEEK test-drove a DOD-equipped Chevy Impala SS and briefly reached 30mpg while going 80mph, though the overall highway trip averaged 20mpg. Not exactly Prius numbers, but impressive for a big cruiser with 303 horsepower--the kind of car Americans tend to drive. "We sell 1.8 million of these engines a year," says GM engineer John Rydzewski. "That's huge fuel savings, enough to cover every single hybrid ever built."

Hybrids, though, have taught the engineers that drivers like constant feedback on their mileage. Most hybrids feature a mileage meter in the dash that lets you game the system (lift off the gas going downhill and watch the meter hit 99mpg!). It turns out it helps to have the same info to calibrate your driving with DOD. GM and Honda both have indicators in their models. But Chrysler, first on the market last year with a cylinder shut-off system on its Hemi V-8, decided not to put a "miser light" in the dash for fear it would confuse customers. The result: when this reporter first tested the Hemi on a 250-mile road trip, it guzzled 18mpg, far below its EPA highway-mileage rating of 25mpg. Yet last week, I managed 24mpg in a Dodge Charger equipped with a Hemi. The difference? Chrysler engineer Greg Pannone suction-cupped an "iBox" info center (not available in dealerships) inside the Charger's windshield that gave me a running update on when I was and wasn't hitting on all cylinders. Says Pannone: "We plan to put a miser indicator on future models."

It will take more than a light in the dashboard to resolve the debate over another promising fuel-saving technology: continuously variable transmission (CVT). CVTs boost mileage by as much as 10 percent by replacing the traditional transmission with a belt-and-pulley system that constantly adjusts to an infinite number of gear ratios to maximize fuel efficiency. But some drivers, accustomed to the way traditional transmissions build speed in steps, are put off by CVTs. They've griped that CVTs are noisy and can give cars a bad case of the shakes. "People complain that there's too much 'vroom' coming from the engine before the car accelerates," says Toyota executive engineer Dave Hermance. "They think the clutch is slipping." GM and Ford are quietly backing away from the CVTs they've put in the Saturn Vue and Ford Five Hundred. They, along with Toyota, are moving to six-speed transmissions, which offer equivalent fuel savings to CVTs but are cheaper to build. Chrysler and Honda are introducing new CVTs tuned to feel more natural (read: like a regular transmission). That's the secret to the success of the best-selling CVT model, Nissan's Murano SUV. "With the Murano, there's a direct connection between your foot and the movement of the car," says Nissan VP Jack Collins. "Drivers don't like gear hunting."

Among the world's automakers, the search is on for the holy grail of engine enhancements: firing the motor without spark plugs. That might sound like a goal only a gear geek could love, but an engine without spark plugs would burn fuel more cleanly and efficiently while boosting fuel economy by 30 to 40 percent. That would give hybrids a run for their money. Honda is tantalizingly close to developing such an engine, whose name clearly hasn't been run through the marketing department yet: homogeneous charge compression ignition, or HCCI. GM also expects to have a running prototype within a few years. An HCCI operates like a diesel engine, which compresses air and gasoline in the cylinders until they spontaneously combust, rather than igniting them with a spark plug. But because an HCCI burns gasoline, it won't belch the soot and noxious gases that hold diesel engines back in America. (Several states, including New York and California, ban today's diesel cars.) The biggest roadblock: HCCI engines have trouble working at start-up and high speeds. Using spark plugs only to start the engine and supplement high speeds is one possible solution, say GM engineers. Honda might unveil a four-cylinder HCCI prototype next year on a hybrid Civic that would get 65mpg. Honda will only say it's working on it.

While the futurists in the engine lab look for the next great leap forward, the wind-tunnel crew celebrates more modest achievements. Lexus aero engineers crafted tiny plastic extensions onto the taillights of the IS sedan to improve its aerodynamics by one hundredth of a point. Mercedes designers went swimming with the fishes to craft their Bionic concept car in the shape of a boxfish, which set a new automotive standard for slippery (when dry). Ford's aero engineers are considering installing shutters on front grilles that will close at high speeds to deflect air cleanly over the hood. Inside Ford's wind tunnel, Koester drops to the floor to show off a plastic air dam he designed under the Lincoln Zephyr's radiator to smooth the breezes beneath the car. Mileage gain: one-tenth mpg. "When we're fighting for hundredths," says Ford's aero chief Steve Wegryn, "that's a big get." The battle to get America's cars to sip, not guzzle, rides on such small victories.